Westminster highway drug stop legal and unconstitutional (updated)

BOULDER– Westminster police conducted a five-and-a-half hour drug stop on Highway 36 Wednesday night, stopping and searching vehicles for narcotics, which isn’t technically constitutional, attorneys say, although the police don’t seem to have violated any laws.

“Random drug stops are unconstitutional. You can’t set up general crime checks, where you pull people over and ask if they beat their wife two weeks ago and so on,” well-known Colorado civil-rights attorney David Lane told the Independent. “It’s not like setting up a DUI stop. That’s the only kind [of stop] that is legal.”

Police set up what the Boulder Daily Camera today described as a “high-profile drug checkpoint” at the Church Ranch Blvd exit, between Denver and Boulder. Police apparently signaled drivers to pull over.

“They had orange [traffic] cones flagged out for those cars,” a witness told the Camera.

Westminster police investigator Trevor Materasso said he thought the broad stops were a “key public safety resource and tool to do drug interdiction.”

“The interstate and highway systems are recognized as conduits that allow large-scale (drug) trafficking through Westminster and the Denver metro area,” he said.

Westminister police conducted a similar large traffic stop and search operation last August nearby on southbound I-25 near 144th Avenue.Highway 36.

Materasso said officers avoid acting unconstitutionally by stopping people not randomly but for traffic violations and then asking for consent to search the vehicles.

“The drug interdiction is based on additional probable cause that would indicate to officers that there would be some kind of narcotic in the vehicle,” he said.

On Wednesday night, however, police stopped 23 cars and issued only 3 traffic tickets. They arrested one man for possession of more than 12 ounces of marijuana.

It’s unclear how many motorists consented to officer requests to search their cars.

In a Friday email to the Independent, Materasso added that the drug stop operations have not been designed by the Westminster force in isolation but are a product of interactions with federal agencies.

“The operation [was] established based on training provided by the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center and Homeland Security, which has guidelines, protocols and procedures to ensure Constitutional rights are not violated. These govern how we conduct this type of operation.”

Lane said traffic stops can be charged by at least superficially unequal power dynamics, where citizens are intimidated by the lights and the uniforms and the gun at the officer’s side and feel that declining a search may antagonize the officer or signal there’s something to hide. But, he said, law-abiding policemen and women know and follow the rules.

“You simply decline the search if you don’t want them to search your car. They have to have probable cause and get a warrant to do it. Refusing a search is not probable cause.”

“There’s no cure for bad cops,” he added, but running into one of those is the exception. “People who refuse a search don’t get searched and go on their way.”

Westminster Police didn’t immediately return calls for comment.

*Note: This story was updated Friday to include comments offered by Investigator Materasso on the role of federal agencies in training Westminster officers in the drug-stop operations.

[ Image by Robert Stokes via Flickr ]

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